Tag Archives: nationalism

Deep thoughts from the political science chair of Handwavia University

Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future. Interplanetary wars don’t count, and neither do wars with robots or zombies. I mean wars among nation-states or global alliances or regional blocs. George Orwell’s 1984, inspired in part by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, imagined a world divided among three totalitarian blocs: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction.

Typically, as noted above, science fiction authors posit a united world under benign or tyrannical world government. How our present divided world came to be united in the future is seldom explained. Science fiction authors are notorious for getting out of plot holes by inventing new technologies like “handwavium.” The political equivalent of handwavium is the World Federation of Handwavia.

Global political unification is becoming less, not more, likely.

Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction.

—Michael Lind, The Future of the Future

It’s fair enough, I suppose, to say that a great deal of futuristic sf assumes a one-world government of some sort. But to say, “I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” seems to beg two questions. 1.) Do you know nothing about sf? 2.) What do you mean by “well-known”?

I mean, 1984 is commonly taught in high schools here in the U.S., and I suspect it’s taught in other English-speaking countries, too. So if by “well-known,” Lind means “part of compulsory education” or “absorbed into common parlance by cultural osmosis,” he still stands on shaky ground.

Let’s consider some counter-examples.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887, probably the preeminent American utopian novel, catapulted its protagonist from the late 19th c. to the end of the 20th., into a Boston that exemplified a nation run somewhere halfway between socialist and fascist principles. Even in that future, where everything was hunky-dory in the U.S., Bellamy is careful to point out that not every nation had reached that height of development, and that America was trying to make inroads through trade and diplomacy. Not many people read Bellamy today outside of academic circles or sf fandom, but Looking Backward was huge in its day. And by “huge,” I mean that it directly impact the shape of domestic politics and served as a touchstone for two generations of political activists and reformers.

Authors who relied often upon the one-world trope still imagined futures where the world was not united. Robert Heinlein’s Moon Is a Harsh Mistress presents an Earth vs. Moon political scenario in order to distill his anarcho-libertarian politics into the pure essence of TANSTAAFL. However, the human-Martian protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land receives help from a cranky old lawyer in leveraging the various governments of the world against each other in order to preserve his own political freedom. It’s probably true that people outside sf fandom have read a ton of Heinlein, but he is unquestionably one of the most significant artists of the genre, and Stranger in a Strange Land was notable for being the first sf novel to hit the NYT Bestseller list.

Another subset of science fiction, one more overtly interested in historiography, presents the sweep of history on such a scale that one-world utopia (or dystopia) is but one part of humanity’s evolution. A particularly trenchant example is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which never once assumes that humanity got over nationalism (or other forms of tribalism). Instead, it presumes that we managed to destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust not once but twice in the course of millennia. The only visions of the future presented there are of varying shades of provincialism. With this novel, though, we are drifting further and further from the realm of popular literature and more into the depths of sf fandom. Despite its nearly-uncontested status as a canonical work of sf, it is admittedly primarily of interest to academics and genre fans. Yet it seems to me that if Lind is going to contend that the elites have been heavily influenced by sf, doesn’t it follow that he expects them to be somewhat familiar with its classics? No?

Contemporary film and television are probably closer to what Lind means. (Maybe?) While Star Trek is likely the most famous future to feature a utopian one-world government at the seat of a galactic federation, other shows and films are not so sanguine. Defiant depicts a near-future after Earth has been through an alien invasion, and new national governments are in the process of attempting to hegemonize the city-states that have thrived since the fall of the world governments. The time travel series Continuum’s future is (as I recall, though it’s been a while since I watched the pilot) a quasi-corporate police state.

Then again, I wouldn’t categorize Defiant or Continuum as “well-known.” Neither enjoys canonical status. Neither is common cultural currency. I would even argue that the most popular science fiction titles tend not to be futuristic. The most well-known are almost all set in a parallel present. Disney’s partnership with Marvel has yielded a juggernaut money-making machine, and films and shows like Agents of SHIELD and the Captain America films are explicitly in touch with the changes superhumans would wreak upon geopolitics. Lind writes elsewhere in his article, “Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness.” That’s simply untrue. Those themes are absolutely part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Other well-known film and TV examples abound. What about District 9? Or Stargate SG-1? Oh, that’s right. They have interplanetary wars with aliens, and those don’t count.

(Almost forgot that part, didn’t you?)

Why don’t interplanetary wars count? Why not wars with robots or zombies? Why does Lind dispense with half the bedrock tropes of science fiction before staking his major claim? What is the point of chastising science fiction as a whole when he’s really only talking about a tiny fraction of it?

Most science-fiction readers would recognize the contours of today’s geopolitics in everything from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s not even taking into account the complicated political worlds of cyberpunk, ranging from William Gibson’s Sprawl stories to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to take-your-pick of anime. All of these are totally typical representatives of sf. Some of them even have cachet beyond sf circles. An argument so contingent upon the particularities of sf ought not, in good faith, frame an argument so as to exclude the vast majority of available evidence.

Yet the only way Lind’s argument makes any sense at all is if he defines his parameters so narrowly that the only science fiction that fits them is not sufficiently “well-known.” That just seems like the essayistic equivalent of reversing the polarity of handwavium. If Lind “can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” perhaps he’s suffering from handwavium poisoning.


UPDATE (19 Oct 2016): After publishing this, I realized that I should acknowledge Lind’s larger point, which is to critique the elitist notion that history will culminate in a universal liberal-democratic government. I understand that, for him, the sf stuff is a means to that end. But it’s a really, really bad choice as a means to that particular end, and just as Lind undervalues the variety and complexity of sf, I suspect he overlooks the variety and complexity of the ways that the elite understand the trajectory of history.


The invasive species of English

In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mizumura, a leading contemporary Japanese novelist who was educated (from high school through graduate school) in the United States and returned to Japan to become a writer, asks a fundamental question: what is the position of non-English-language writers (particularly non-European writers) in a global world so thoroughly dominated by English that no writer can escape its weighty impact? In the opening chapter, which describes her experience at an International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she points to a hierarchy among literary languages, in which languages at the bottom are dying at an unprecedented rate, like animals and plants affected by severe environmental change, with English overrunning and homogenizing what had been a highly diversified linguistic landscape.

What Mizumura calls a “universal language” is not determined by the number of its speakers of that language but by the number who depend on it for their survival. Outside of the Anglo-European sphere, a linguistic and cultural hierarchy has emerged in which English, with its access to the latest knowledge and technology, stands at the top, while national and other local languages stand below; most nonnative English writers strive to be bilingual, but it is a severely asymmetrical relationship. Historically, in Mizumura’s words, “the universal [now English], which society places above the local, is assigned the heavy responsibility of aspiring to the highest excellence, not only aesthetically but also intellectually and ethically. In contrast, even if it has a writing system, the lower-ranking local language is primarily intended for only uneducated men and women.”

–Haruo Shirane, “What Global English Means for World Literature



People of the (Face)book

A few juxtapositions. First, Michael Case in a recent Verge article:

Imagine a single, central website that could answer any question you had about government and whether it can help you. One portal where you could log in, and with a tool as familiar as Google search, ask: “how can I apply for a passport?” “is it illegal to fish without a license in Washington, DC?” “where do I vote?” “what do I do if my disability claim is taking too long?” “what forms do I need to establish my business?” No matter your query, you are met with an actionable answer, or a way to contact a human being who can help you with your request.


Now imagine you’ve gotten a useful answer from that website, but you need to sign some forms, have a photo taken, or take a test. For one reason or another, you need to interact with a human being face to face. What if there was one place in every community that could deliver all government services? Post offices are ubiquitous across America — what if they could be retrofitted to also be Social Security offices and DMVs and passport offices and polling locations? What if folks who aren’t comfortable with fancy, modern websites could walk into their post office and have any question about government answered for them? Yeah.

— Michael Case, “Our future government will work more like Amazon”

Étienne Balibar, from 2003:

Surely freedom of movement is a basic claim that must be incorporated within the citizenship of all people (and not only for representatives of the ‘powerful nations,’ for whom this is largely a given). But the droit de cité (rights to full citizenship) includes everything from residential rights as part of having a ‘normal’ place in society to the exercise of political rights in those locations and groupings into which individuals and groups have been ‘thrown’ by history and the economy. Let’s not be afraid of saying it: these citizenship rights include the manner of their belonging in state communities, even, and indeed especially, if they belong to more than one such community. Given the above, the right to full citizenship is indissolubly linked to freedom of movement.

— Étienne Balibar (trans. Frank Collins), “Europe, an ‘Unimagined’ Frontier of Democracy,” Diacritics 33.3/4 (Autumn/Winter 2003): 36-44

Via an io9 article on governments of the future, a review of Zach Weinersmith’s “thought experiment in distributed government”:

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

— Sword of Science, “Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government”

John Gall’s quasi-panarchist polemic from 1975:

“Under Free Choice of Territory, a citizen of any country is free to live in any part of the world he chooses. He remains a citizen of the government he prefers, to which he pays taxes and for whose officers he votes. However, as the term Free Choice of Government implies, he may at any time change his citizenship and his allegiance from his present government to another government that offers more attractive tax rates, better pensions, more interesting public officials, or simply an invigorating change of pace (Common courtesy would seem to require two weeks’ advance notice; the standard notice any employer would give an employee.)

With these two new Freedoms in effect, one would expect that after a short period of equilibration, citizens of any nation would be distributed amongst the citizens of all other nations – not necessarily at random, but sufficiently so for our purpose, which is to remove them effectively from the grip of their own government. A government can hardly put any large number of its own citizens in jail if it has to send halfway around the world for them, one by one, and persuade other governments of the justice of the proceedings. Raising armies would become administratively impossible. Furthermore, wars of any government against another would become impractical, since large numbers of the “enemy” would be distributed all over the world, including the territory of the home government.

The net result of the two new Freedoms would be to break up the Concentration of the Governed, to divide and distribute them throughout other governments, a principle which we shall call the Comminution of Hegemony. If practiced on a world-wide scale it could lead to revolutionary changes in the relationship of citizens to their governments, reversing the traditional polarity and making governments fearfully dependent upon the favor or even the whims of their citizenry rather than vice versa.”

— John Gall, “Systematics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail” (1975)

Leonidas Donskis on the relation of the Facebook “community” to the Jewish diaspora:

“The diaspora was once the unique fate and curse of the Jews, but now we are all living in the diaspora. So that we might recognize ourselves as exiles and emigrants or, alternatively, reject these descriptions, there must exist a territorial nation along with the territory that collects and defines that nation and gives it meaning. But the nations of today are, increasingly, extraterritorial and global formations, collecting themselves in the distribution zone of virtual reality and information (of that of symbolic power and social prestige, which nowadays coincides with the attention gained and the number of ‘likes’ earned). All of us have more or less become people of the global diaspora. Nowadays we are all global exiles. Thus, the diaspora becomes a normal, legitimized, recognized, and practically routinized form of life. Who is abnormal? Only someone who pines after a territorial or local past.


There was a time when secret services and the political police worked hard to extract secrets and get people to reveal the details of their private and even intimately personal lives. Today, these intelligence services should feel simultaneously exhilarated and unnecessary. What can they bring to the table when everyone is telling everything about their own business themselves? Even if people don’t disclose what they’re doing, whom they dislike, and how they got rich, they still reveal with whom they communicate and whom they know. And it’s impossible not to participate in this orgy of sharing and disclosing. If you don’t participate or if you withdraw, you lose your sense of past and present; you sever contact with your classmates and your colleagues; you get separated from your community. In virtual reality and on Facebook, what vanishes is a fundamental aspect of real freedom: self-determination and a free choice of association. You have entered this new realm of friendships, of cyberconnectedness, because technology — and its hard-to-discern masters — have convinced you that you cannot live a civilized life otherwise. Or elsewhere.” — Leonidas Donskis, “Facebook Nation,” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 94-101